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Love and PCs: Your first computer memories

Jess James
06.23.15
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I'm an old man with old bones. This fact, oft disputed by my wife, has one very significant advantage which I commonly enjoy lauding over my younger brethren in the nerdy techy community, and that advantage is that my tinkering with screens, keyboards and electronic devices extends all the way back to decades that the generations below me have only heard about in stories.

Therefore, when asked about my earliest computer memories I do not talk about iPad's, Call of Duty games or even experiencing Doom for the first time (although I remember that day with great fondness). Those with less grey in their beards might have not even heard of a ZX Spectrum or even an Atari ST, but these were the first computers on which I cut my techy teeth.

It's the Atari ST specifically been thinking about. Although I had other computers and game consoles before it, it was Atari's amazing machine which really began to open my eyes to the possibilities. It was the first machine I owned which had a mouse, meaning I had to learn what a double-click was. It was the first machine I owned which had a desktop, with icons and windows and a files and everything. It had to be plugged into a TV, but you could also plug it into a monochrome monitor and use various apps in super duper high resolution.

It also had 'The Secret of Monkey Island', which to me, at the time, was everything I could ever have envisaged as electronic entertainment. It had music playing all the time which changed as you moved from location to location and beautiful full colour graphics.

It also had Dungeon Master.

I don't think words can describe what it was like playing Dungeon Master for the first time. Deep and complex, immersive and atmospheric, difficult and engrossing Dungeon Master was everything I never knew I wanted. I was never a D&D kind of kid, preferring to allow my imagination to rest in a comfy chair with a chocolaty drink. Having my story delivered to me was what I wanted, and giving me an experience as complex as this to interact with changed everything. It was revelatory, and has taken me on a long and beautiful journey which is still going strong 35 years later as I wend my way to the end of the third Witcher game.

But it wasn't just my lifelong video gaming which made my years with the Atari ST so special. Anyone remember Degas Elite? A progenitor to Photoshop which gave me my first steps into digital artistry. Anyone ever used Calamus? I used this early desktop publishing software to actually make things. All this and it had MIDI ports on it. Mean anything to anyone? Well, to me it meant I could take my electric keyboard, plug it into my computer and record my own music.

Interestingly the Atari ST was my first exposure to fanboyism. There was a rival computer on the shelves at the time and it was called a Commodore Amiga. When my Dad walked me into the shop to get my new computer I vividly remember him actually asking me whether I wanted an Amiga instead. I'd read magazines, researched the specs and I knew it was the Atari that I wanted because the Amiga just sucked. Funnily enough when you talked Amiga owners they seemed to think that they Atari sucked, but they just didn't have all the facts at their disposal. In the end it was the MIDI ports which sold it to me, although the enhanced gaming experience on the Amiga was tempting - not that I'd have admitted that at the time.

The Atari was also my first exposure to new model envy. You have no idea how badly I wanted a Falcon. I ached for it. It was an awesome upgrade and I needed it badly. Actually, I never had one, so the Atari was also my first exposure to technology based disappointment.

In every real sense, and to my more sophisticated 21st Century eyes, the Atari was my first multi-purpose computer. I didn't just use it to play games, I used it to run apps which had useful purposes, I used it to draw pictures and make music, I even used it to write computer code, which I hadn't been much good at up until this point. Perhaps even more significantly it had floppy disks removing the need for analogue to digital convertors and the unreliable screeching of magnetic tape media gone forever. Swappable, portable digital media for my games, files and apps, accessible through an icon on my shiny green TOS desktop. The beginning of my steady drive through to Linux and it's many windows managers and the upcoming Windows 10.

While my lifelong love affair with technology had it earliest roots in events and devices years before, it was the Atari ST which opened my eyes to the possibilities of computer ownership. I began to see just what they could be used for, what they could offer me and in some small ways what they might become. As I connected external devices to my cream coloured 512K behemoth I began to wonder what other things might be connected to and controlled by my computer. As I drew simple pictures with my new mouse I wondered what else might be possible. As I got my first external hard drive I wondered what other possibilities might be offered by permanent storage.

Later on of course I moved on. I got my first x86 PC. I was given access to SUN Sparc workstations and discovered the Internet through a monochrome Mosaic browser. I got my first email account, printers, high resolution monitors, advanced gaming and so on and so on but it was the ST which started my computing life proper.

One thing which becomes clear to me looking back is that I began to harbor a resolute desire for technology to be applied. I love a really cool gadget as much as anyone, but if I have no use for it I will lose interest fast. I've seen gadgets and toys and all manner of exciting innovations but if I can't apply them to my everyday life, once the novelty has worn off I'm looking for my next fix. It's the truly useful that lingers.

With that in mind I feel that the modern cell phone is the single most astonishing invention in the history of history ever. It's just so damn useful. Every day I use it for so many things. Navigation. Music. Web browsing. Communication. The list goes on and on. From time to time I force myself to step back from the familiarity of the device in my pocket and objectively allow myself to be astonished by what it is capable of. Just the ability to call anyone in the world at any time is frankly mind boggling. While writing this I can't help thinking that taking the time to objectively appreciate everything I could do with my beloved ST. It all started there. I even remember the day I sold it. I was genuinely sad.

A shout out to all the ST owners out there who still remember it fondly and appreciate everything it did for them.

Plus, ya know... It was honestly the third biggest monkey head I'd ever seen.

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